I had a much older trombone-playing friend growing up named Stan. He was someone I rarely interacted with outside of music, but I grew into an adult playing my upright bass right alongside him in my temple’s intergenerational klezmer band. Pointing to my now comically small quarter-sized bass, he always used to say, “I remember when that thing was bigger than you are!” He called me things like “squirt,” even though I was soon much taller than he was, and he was always a friendly supporter of my amateur musicianship. When he passed away a few days ago, I realized just how important he was to me, and the profound impact he had on my adolescent growth.
In Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s directorial debut film The Way Way Back, protagonist Duncan (Liam James) doesn’t have a “Stan,” or any other male role models to speak of. His father is entirely absent from his life, and his mother’s boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell), would have to try hard to be a worse example of an adult human being. After losing someone who was so influential in my life, Duncan’s desperate struggle to find a guide through the pains of his teenage years struck a chord with me.
Filling that void for Ducan is the always reliable Sam Rockwell as Owen, a water park owner whose own life has slowed to an unbearable crawl. Unsurprisingly, Rockwell gives the standout performance in the film, offering his rebellious charm to a character who, right down to his outfit, reminded me of his role in Matchstick Men as Frank Mercer. Carell also knocks it out of the park as he infuses the unredeemable Trent with absolutely no endearing features whatsoever. By the end of the film, Trent’s character arc remains a solid flat line, which is impressive considering Carell’s typically unquashable natural charisma.
James offers an admirably awkward portrayal of Duncan, and AnnaSophia Robb as Susanna is sympathetic as Duncan’s beach neighbor and love interest. Allison Janey also gives a good performance as the drunken, obnoxious neighbor Betty, although her character is generally underutilized. The rest of the cast is solid, if unmemorable, save for River Alexander’s self-deprecating role as the quick-witted neighbor Peter who is sidelined early on and never gets enough time in the spotlight.
The way Rash and Faxon cast aside some of their more interesting characters is indicative of the film’s overall imbalance. As with any drama/comedy, the filmmaker is always striving to give both light and dark aspects of the story enough time to breathe and communicate their respective messages. In The Way Way Back, the focus is frustratingly placed on Duncan’s sad home life. This works as a set-up for his arc, but if Duncan’s growth takes flight when he spends time in the water park, it’s hard not to feel like that should be the centerpiece of the movie. Instead, the audience is treated to a simplified, ultra-brief montage as Duncan begins to blossom into a self-confident young man before being shunted back into his family’s internal drama.
Having seen both Faxon and Rash’s The Descendants and now The Way Way Back, it has become clear that the pair is adept at capturing human emotion and reaction to very real situations. However, their sense of dialogue is oddly stilted. The conversations in The Way Way Back alternate between clumsy attempts at profundity and throwaway plot-driving conversations. Where a similarly-themed film like It’s Kind of Funny Story successfully straddled this line, The Way Way Back just doesn’t quite ring true in this regard.
The other area in which The Way Way Back loses luster is in its predictability. The film never throws a curveball at the audience, opting for a straightforward, well-worn narrative that refuses to take any significant risks with its subject matter. There is a glimmer of hope as the movie transitions into its second act where it seemed the story would head in an entirely new direction, but alas, the moment turned out to be an ugly spot of depressingly poor pacing. Rash and Faxon might do well to take a cue from the rather meandering coming-of-age specialist Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, Gentleman Broncos); while that director makes films with a clear end goal in mind, he tends to wander toward his destination rather than power walk, offering the audience a reason to attentively follow his protagonists.
The Way Way Back features a few outstanding performances, a decent script, and a noble (if cliché) message. Other movies have worked with this material before and some have done it much better, but it’s hard not to fall for Rash and Faxon’s quirky characters and humble storytelling style. The film rarely elicited serious laughs and never managed to squeeze out any tears from my theater’s audience, but from a technical standpoint, The Way Way Back is an admirable first effort for the up-and-coming, Oscar-winning, filmmaking pair.
Verdict: Movie Win
A Note on “Sad” Home Lives – Bear in mind here that Duncan’s supposedly miserable existence includes a very middle class life and a paradisiacal summer in a beach house. His mother’s boyfriend may be a huge tool, but to say the kid’s life is anything but privileged would be a gross understatement. For many audience members, this author included, that conceit undercuts the emotional weight of many of the film’s more dramatic scenes.